Gillian Marcus is an emerging paper and photographic conservator and recent graduate from the conservation program at Camberwell College of Arts in London, UK. She has held internships at the Royal Collection, the Centre for Photographic Conservation, and the Black Cultural Archives.
I recently had the unique opportunity to work with a contemporary artist and draughtsman in his studio in order to prepare several of his large, unfinished mixed-media pieces for an upcoming exhibition. It is rare – although not unheard of – for an artist to hire a conservator to stabilize work in progress; generally the artist will take steps to repair the object himself at this stage. However, these large-scale drawings were composed of several smaller sheets of very soft Fabriano Umbria paper that had been joined with wheat starch paste by a previous conservator, and the joins were beginning to show signs of stress. The artist tends to work on particular drawings on and off over the course of several years, sometimes decades, with each object going into storage until he chooses to pick it up again and resume work. In addition, travel between South America, the United Kingdom, and Israel and the resulting variety of storage conditions and climate changes had caused the paper supports to warp and the edges and joins to become ragged or torn.
After several consultations, the artist and I agreed on a treatment plan, in which the drawings’ joins would be reinforced with Japanese tissue and shoufu paste, tears and holes would be repaired, and areas of cracked, flaking paper and friable media would be consolidated. Several of the larger pieces would also be humidified and pressed to remove distortions in the paper and at the joins. This is pretty standard conservation work, with one big difference: I would have the artist peeking over my shoulder, metaphorically (and often literally) speaking. I would also be working on several drawings as they were still in progress, stabilizing them before they were completed. In this instance my role was part collaborator, part caretaker, and I viewed it as a learning experience of the best kind.
After spending much of my training as a conservator working on very old objects, I was astounded by the wealth of information to be found in the artist’s studio. You’re in amongst the artist’s paints and chalks, the small ceramic pots, the doodles and sketches on bits of paper, and the stacks of old canvases. You’re even drinking his peppermint tea and letting him choose the radio station you’re going to be listening to for the next several days (smooth jazz, in this case). This is a rare opportunity to see exactly what materials an artist uses and the methods he uses to apply them, so in some ways this makes a conservator’s job easier.
However, there is one aspect of the collaborative nature of the job that can prove to be challenging in a different way. With a project of this type, the mix of personalities and communication styles involved are almost as important as the technical skills. Perhaps one of you more of a risk-taker, while the other a bit more cautious when it comes to assessing possible outcomes of a treatment. Do you get along with one another and have a mutual respect for what each brings to the table? Are you able to communicate openly with one another?
With this type of work, the collaboration is not merely physical, but also an alchemy of disposition, experience, and – perhaps most importantly – relationship to the object. You’ve been given the honor of handling a piece of someone’s life’s work, and this is itself a rare position to be in. Even the most sensitive collector or institution will not have the same relationship to the object that its creator will, and with that responsibility in mind, it’s important to tread carefully, to be sensitive to the artist’s relationship with his own object.
This may have been the most important lesson I learned during those days in the studio. As a conservator it’s sometimes easy to see the object you’re treating as a fully formed thing, sprung into existence as a finished piece. Working on unfinished drawings with the artist present served as a very good lesson that conservation treatments are not one size fits all. As the artist reminded me on several occasions – for example, when I fretted about his plans to staple a large drawing to a wooden frame or soak the back of a moisture-sensitive gouache painting with water – it is his work. My role was to ensure that the objects were sturdy enough to withstand whatever journey he took them on, both in and out of the studio. As conservators we are used to handling materials with care, but working with a living artist can require its own kind of gentle touch, as well.